Every good thing has an end…
In 2012, I started a reading challenge that has since proved to be one of my most fascinating reading experiences:
to read a book related to 52 different countries.
I did it loosely, considering either the author was from that country, or simply that the book was set there. It was definitely challenging at times to find a book for a particular country in my library, and especially because I was trying to see if I could find some as audiobooks.
So one day, searching through my local public library catalog for Morocco, I came up with Mrs. Pollifax and The Whirling Dervish, by Dorothy Gilman and narrated by Barbara Rosenblat.
I thought it was brilliant, and I soon discovered that each book of the series was set in a different country. Perfect! I reviewed most of them here as I went along (get to the reviews with the links here below).
Today, as I have alas listened to all of the 14 books of the series, and the author died 2 years ago, I ‘d like to recapitulate and tell you why this series is so good, and why you should definitely try it.
First, let me use a wikipedia short synopsis for each book [links go to my own reviews]:
The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax (1966)
Mrs. Pollifax is an elderly widow who has come to find life dull and is almost ready to end it all out of sheer boredom. Inspired by a newspaper profile of an actress who began her career in later life, she decides to fulfill a childhood ambition and apply for a job as a spy at the CIA. Meanwhile, Carstairs at the CIA is looking for an agent who can pass as a tourist in order to pick up some important microfilms in Mexico City. Due to a slight confusion, he thinks Mrs. Pollifax is one of the candidates and decides that Mrs. Pollifax is ideal; Carstairs decided this assignment carries so little danger that even one who is relatively untrained may be sent. So with minimum explanation, Pollifax is ushered off to Mexico City to meet a bookstore owner/secret agent, exchange code phrases, leave with a book containing the microfilm. Of course, the courier mission does not go as planned, and Mrs. Pollifax finds herself in a prison in Iron Curtain-era Albania, facing harsh questioning and possible torture. But she proves to be unusually resourceful, and with her companion’s assistance, manages to outwit the enemy and save the day.
The Amazing Mrs. Pollifax (1970)
For this novel, Mrs. Pollifax is called again by Mr. Carstairs, her CIA superior. This time, he asks her to go to Turkey and contact Magda Ferenci-Sabo, a known Russian spy and secret double agent who is defecting to the Free World. Emily Pollifax is to give Magda money and a passport which will enable the former spy to leave Turkey. Although Carstairs gives Mrs. Pollifax only 30 minutes to get ready, the plucky widow is ready for another adventure. She flies to Turkey and sees Magda, but she is unable to make personal contact before Magda flees. In pursuing her mission, Mrs. Pollifax embarks on a wild ride, matching wits with a diabolical double agent, traveling with Gypsies, and again surviving imprisonment. However, characteristically, she befriends unlikely allies along her way.
The Elusive Mrs. Pollifax (1971)
A Palm for Mrs. Pollifax (1973)
Mrs. Pollifax is dispatched to Switzerland to find some missing plutonium: Mr. Carstairs of the CIA suspects the contraband has been hidden in an upscale clinic in Switzerland. Mrs. Pollifax begins a careful investigation of the guests at the clinic and rapidly befriends a young British man, a Belgian woman, and a young boy and his grandmother from an Arab nation. She soon discovers that very few of the clinic patients are who they claim to be and she becomes involved in intrigue with men who plan to overthrow the government of a small country. She, of course, displays the courage and ingenuity which Mr. Carstairs has learned to depend on, and she leads her outnumbered friends into the adventure of their lives.
Mrs. Pollifax on Safari (1976)
Mrs. Pollifax is called upon by the CIA to undertake another mission; this time to photograph members of a safari in Zambia, one of whom is an international assassin nicknamed Aristotle. She innocently posts an ad in the local newspaper trying to contact her old friend Farrell from the first book. This leads to major complications as Farrell is involved with the freedom fighters across the border and has made some enemies. Another entertaining outing and with a bit of romance as a fellow traveler takes a fancy to Mrs. Pollifax.
Mrs. Pollifax is thrilled when Mr. Carstairs, her boss at the CIA, gives her an assignment to China to help rescue a prisoner from a labor camp. As luck would have it, she has recently completed a course in Chinese history, so she is primed and ready to go. She joins a tour group and is told that one of the other group members is actually a CIA agent who will become her partner later on. She tries unsuccessfully to detect her future partner and is very surprised when the agent’s identity is revealed. As the action speeds up she finds the labor camp, she rides a runaway horse and encounters some rough stuff from a Russian spy. But she always comes through in the end.
Mrs. Pollifax flies on a moment’s notice to Hong Kong, to contact Sheng Ti, whom she met in an earlier book and find out what is going on at Feng Imports where Sheng Ti is working for an agent named Detwiler. Detwiler’s reports to the CIA have proved to be false, so he is suspected of being a counterspy and giving evidence to the enemy. Mrs. Pollifax meets some other interesting characters, including a psychic, and another old friend who is a reformed cat burglar while in pursuit of the truth about Feng Imports. She is captured and tortured, but overcomes as always.
This time Mrs. Pollifax’s assignment seems simple: while she and her husband Cyrus Reed are vacationing in Thailand, she is to pick up some valuable information on drug smuggling from an informant called Ruamsak. Everything goes awry immediately: Ruamsak is murdered, Cyrus is kidnapped and Emily joins forces with Bonchoo, an intriguing stranger with complex reasons of his own for wanting to find Cyrus. They meet the Akha people in the jungle. The usual phalanx of muddled but supportive CIA agents try to follow Emily through the jungles of Thailand and are seriously rattled when one of their directors abruptly vanishes, only to reappear in the Golden Triangle as the head of all illicit drug trafficking. Pollifax needs all her wiles and her considerable skills in the martial arts, not only to track her husband but also to put a serious dent in the heroin trade. She accomplishes everything with vigor and charm.
Mrs. Pollifax is dispatched to Morocco to provide a cover for another of their agents, Max Janko. She will pose as Max’s aunt to make the pair look like tourists, while in reality they will be trying to identify all seven Moroccan CIA operatives in order to ferret out the mole who has recently infiltrated the Atlas network, a secret branch of the CIA. Anticipating a relatively serene journey through picturesque Moroccan villages with an agreeable companion, Mrs. Pollifax is dismayed to find Janko insufferably hostile. Worse, he intends to kill her. By the time the real Janko shows up, a murder has occurred, and Mrs. Pollifax and her inexperienced companion are running for their lives from one dusty hamlet to the next, desperately trying to find the informer and save the rest of the network.
Mrs. Pollifax travels to Sicily in this adventure. Former colleague John Farrell, hired to crack a safe and lift a document signed by Julius Caesar sends an SOS while dodging a professional assassin whom he and Mrs. Pollifax jailed some years ago. Soon she too is ducking bullets and the old pals are forced to hole up in the Villa Franca–part farm, part medieval fortress and full-time residence of young CIA agent Kate Rossiter’s eccentric aunt. Ancient artifacts, hair-raising chases, art forgery, arms traffic, a nighttime assault on the villa, mysterious millionaires, spectacular scenery and unexpected romance are some of the ingredients simmering in the plot.
Mrs. Pollifax Pursued (1995)
The observant and unflappable Mrs. Pollifax discovers a young woman hiding in a closet of her Connecticut home on the same day that she observes a suspicious white van patrolling the neighborhood. Kadi Hopkirk says the men in the van have been following her ever since she met Sammy, a childhood friend from the African country of [fictional] Ubangiba. Mrs. Pollifax hides Kadi in the car and takes to the highway but is unable to shake the van until she calls on her colleagues at the CIA, who send a helicopter to whisk them away to a traveling carnival in rural Maine. Mrs. Pollifax poses as a journalist, and Kadi becomes the lower half of the woman who is sawed in two, while the CIA pals find out who Sammy is and why he is being so heavily guarded. Mrs. Pollifax adroitly solves several mysteries, including a stabbing at the carnival, Kadi and Sammy’s story and the abduction of a wealthy executive.
Mrs. Pollifax and the Lion Killer (1996)
The sequel to Mrs. Pollifax Pursued, in which we meet Kadi Hopkirk, the daughter of Ubangiba missionaries. Kadi’s college friend Sammy is now trying to rule Ubangiba after many years of dictatorship. Sammy calls upon Kadi for help and Mrs. Pollifax decides to accompany her to Africa. There have been a series of violent deaths at the hands of a “lion killer”, one who dons a lion costume, and Sammy’s enemies have accused him of being behind the murders. When Kadi arrives in Ubangiba, she becomes the target of an old enemy, and Mrs. Pollifax does her best to protect the young girl. A potential archaeological dig and the hint of romance for Kadi combine with political intrigue and murder to create another satisfying story of Mrs. Pollifax.
Mrs. Pollifax travels to Jordan with former Company agent John Sebastian Farrell to receive a manuscript smuggled from Iraq, written by an executed dissident Iraqi novelist. As Farrell’s cover, Mrs. Pollifax poses as his tourist cousin but immediately is up to her flowered straw hat in intrigue. Farrell’s contact doesn’t show up for their scheduled meeting at the Crusader castle at Karak, although Emily does find a dead body there. When their guide, Youseff, and his sister, Hanan, invite them to visit their grandfather, a desert sheik, they’re trailed by Jordanian terrorists, the Iraqi secret police and Jordanian police. The climax occurs at an ancient desert fort after a whirlwind of brisk action and seductive scenery.
Mrs. Pollifax Unveiled (2000)
Mrs. Pollifax teams up with freelance CIA agent John Farrell on an investigation into the disappearance of Amanda Pym in Syria. Ms. Pym was a fifteen-minute media superstar when she allegedly stopped an airplane hijacking from succeeding. Witnesses last saw Amanda enter a vehicle that waited for her at the Damascus Airport. Farrell and Mrs. Pollifax land in Syria where the government places a tail on the duo. However, they quickly elude their shadow in order to obtain information that provides them with the first clue in their hunt. They soon enter the Syrian Desert where they meet American archeologist Joe Fleming. Joining the two operatives on their quest, Joe and the two spies seek an elusive individual who seems to be undergoing a rigorous training for a mission that has world implications.
What puzzles me is why isn’t this series better known? There’s even a Mrs. Pollifax Fan Blog, but it’s not really active. There have been a few movie adaptations, but really who has watched them?
Maybe it’s because there’s no sex and no gratuitous violence… well, that already makes this series unique, doesn’t it?
Here are other reasons why I enjoyed it so much:
- Emily Pollifax is a very active grand-mother who ended up being a spy because she felt bored
- with her flower hats and her grand-mother looks, she has actually the perfect profile of the under cover agent: really, who would think of suspecting her to be a spy, and who can guess she has actually a brown belt in karate?
- each character is so well defined, it was real pleasure meeting them again in each book
- as a grand-mother, Emily has her way with kids and teenagers who could be her grand-children, Indeed, most often, she is helped in her dangerous missions by younger people
- the plots are all different and very well done: never did I think once, I have seen this already, I know what’s coming, never
- the fact that each book is set in a different country is really remarkable. Gilman did an amazing homework about these countries, and in each book, she manages to give great descriptions of the landscape, and of the historical, social, and political background of what’s going on, from drug traffic to separatists movement and many more.
Her last book, on Syria, sounds so up to date with current events…
And still about Mrs. Pollifax Unveiled, I was amazed to realize Gilman has even a character in this mystery quote a poem by Nizar Kabbani. In case you don’t know him, but Nizar Kabbani is THE Syrian poet, one if not the most famous modern poets of the Arabic language. I had actually just discovered him and had just read his amazing Arabian Love Poems (review coming soon), so I was shocked when I heard Gilman quote him!
Even the two books set in a fictional African country, Ubangiba, are full of so many characteristics and problems common to many African countriies right now.
- and last but not least, the narrator of the series, Barbara Rosenblat, is just incredible. She has the perfect voice for Emily, but also is so good at varying her voice and tone for male characters, or for younger characters, and for characters with all kinds of foreign accents. Of course for me Emily has her voice!
VERDICT: If you enjoy smart mysteries and are eager to travel the world in the company of a unique spy, trust me and listen to Mrs. Pollifax series.